the arts for
Indeed, every political regime uses the arts for propaganda purposes, consciously deploys the arts to try to shape the consciousness of their populations. And every resistance movement does the same, often with much better aesthetic results than those procured by the state, the arts of which are often gigantical yet excruciatingly dull.
Indeed, every political regime uses the arts for propaganda purposes, consciously deploys the arts to try to shape the consciousness of their populations. And every resistance movement does the same, often with much better aesthetic results than those procured by the state, the arts of which are often gigantical yet excruciatingly dull. Political power has shaped the discipline of art history to an incalculable extent, and the art that survives from eras past is whatever the authorities permitted to persist. The history of art is, hence, by and large the history of monuments and of artworks compatible with capitulation. One suspects that there were skeptics, atheists, and anarchists roaring through the medieval and renaissance period; their blasphemous paintings and poems (and indeed their blasphemous persons) were immolated. By contrast, when a political regime starts making aesthetic objects, it tries to make them eternal: under the aegis of taxation it stacks up massive blocks of heavy stone until tearing them down is just too much work.
I think, however, that the relation of aesthetics and politics is tighter than this might suggest, and the function of the arts as propaganda of domination or of resistance does not nearly exhaust the political significance of the arts.
When we characterize political systems, constitutions, or ideologies, we tend to think about texts: the Republic of Plato, the Communist Manifesto, Common Senseor the Declaration of Independence. But political systems, constitutions, and ideologies are embodied in all sorts of non-textual or not-primarily-textual items. A political ideology is not merely a series of assertions; it is a multi-media aesthetic surround. Now the texts themselves have to be viewed aesthetically as well as semantically, and the power of the Declaration of Independence is not only what it declares, but the poetry by which it declares what it declares. Most Americans can probably recite only a line or two, but most of us have the image of a yellowed parchment with calligraphy in a vitrine: the Declaration is also treated and understood as a work of visual art.
Even text must be taken in its material and formal qualities: roman as against blackletter typesetting; mechanically reproduced as inscribed, or mechanically reproduced as uttered; scrawled illegally or reproduced with the utmost care in a scholarly edition. The voice of the Federalist Papers – calm, rational, elaborately reflective, or almost leisurely – is inseparable from the doctrines it expresses, and both have their origins in classical rhetoric and the political arrangements in which classical rhetoric was developed.
However and to repeat, the function of the arts within politics is not primarily propaganda or sheer manipulation or mere rhetoric. The relation is constitutive; a political system consists of its aesthetic embodiments rather as a chair consists of atoms or whatever it may be. The allegiance of a leader and of her followers is not to a string of doctrines but to an aesthetic system, including the way in which doctrines are actually embodied and disseminated. For the doctrines are no less subject to transformation by context than are the aesthetic systems, and though we can recite the Bill of Rights we cannot hold the sentences constant as to meaning.
I might suggest by way of conclusion that the skills of the aesthetician might profitably be turned in this direction, that aesthetics ought to apply itself to what has been conceived to be the subject-matter of political science. Whether after such a transformation the political remains the subject of a science depends, I suppose, on how one conceives the art/science dichotomy.